Scholar Strike 3: Race in Biblical Interpretation

As I wrote in my post yesterday, race was not a concept that influenced the composition of biblical texts.

It has, however, deeply influenced their reception and use. Over the past 500 years it has been inextricably bound up in the practice of biblical translation, interpretation, and application. Biblical scholarship—both historical and theological—has been conducted in a world where racial concepts, hierarchies, and structures permeate life at every level, and biblical studies have not been immune to their influence.

The vast majority of biblical scholarship in these centuries was conducted by white, Christian men who sat at or near the top of racial, gender, religious, and class hierarchies, and their interpretations inevitably bear the marks of those social positions. Many read race into these texts where it was not originally present, and the character of these readings have skewed white supremacist (in the broader sense)—not universally and not always explicitly, but often enough and strongly enough to be undeniable.

A number of scholars—particularly scholars of color—are working to untangle the white supremacy that has become so deeply enmeshed with biblical interpretation, and I admit freely that this is not my area of expertise. So I’ll offer one illustration and then point to some work by other scholars that will provide a more comprehensive and detailed representation of the issues.

Early in my graduate studies, I sat in on a seminar session on Old Testament ethics. The professor was white, and if I remember correctly, all of the students were too. The topic of this particular session was slavery in the Old Testament.

In a pre-circulated paper, the professor had outlined his thoughts on the nature and ethics of the topic. To be fair, the limited Hebrew vocabulary for slaves and slavery (עבד [masculine], אמה and שפחה [feminine]) do refer to many different social arrangements and situations with what seem to be quite variable parameters. They apply to Israelites sold into debt bondage (e.g., Leviticus 25:44) and enslaved prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 10:16, 20:10–15), as well as high-ranking officials in the royal court (Exodus 10:7, 1 Samuel 22:14), and there is legitimate work to be done exploring the details and particulars of individual instances and the essential commonalities that bind them together.

The seminar paper, however, admitted to little of the diversity or ambiguity, and generally presented Israelite practices in the most sympathetic light possible. In fact, the professor suggested that the relevant Hebrew words should be translated “servant” in every case, and followed that practice throughout the paper. This was done in part to distance the practices of biblical servitude from modern race-based chattel slavery. While perhaps imperfect, biblical slavery was cast as a basically ethical arrangement, nothing like the fundamentally corrupt trans-Atlantic system.

One section of the paper was titled “The Advantages of Servanthood,” and it defended the pleasant ness and even desirability of Israelite servitude with a quote from a Chinese domestic servant in early 20th-century San Francisco:

I don’t know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love…. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence…. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less.

As the professor admitted, though, this quote came from a work of fiction. It was spoken by the character Lee in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. In effect, one white man was defending ancient servitude with words that another white man had placed in the mouth of a fictional non-white servant to defend modern servitude.

I should not have to point out that this is not legitimate evidence. There is no necessary connection between a real experience of subordination and the idea of it that exists in the master’s imagination.

Consider a rosy depiction from another era, in which servants are described as

hapy, contented…Lightly tasked, well clothed, well fed—far better than the free laborers of any country in the world,… their lives and persons protected by the law, all their sufferings alleviated by the kindest and most interested care..

Here we know that reality bore no resemblance to the pretty picture. The servants, in this case, were enslaved Black Americans, and the speaker was James Henry Hammond, who said this on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1836, as part of a two-hour speech defending race-based chattel slavery as a positive social good.

First-person narratives of race-based chattel slavery in the United States, of course, attest overwhelmingly to its brutality and inhumanity. The disconnect between reality and representations by Hammond and other  apologists could not be starker. Perhaps this should not be surprising, since most of them had a vested financial interest in its continuation, and thus in its moral justifiability.

Likewise, John Steinbeck grew up in a household with maids and servants, and so had experienced servitude largely from the master’s point of view. I do not know the professor’s history or situation, but in his treatment of the topic of Israelite slavery, he showed a naive and uncritical willingness to accept the master’s point of view that was undoubtedly conditioned by his position at the top of a racial hierarchy in a society where that position aligned him more often with masters than with servants.

Just as he accepted Steinbeck’s portrayal of servanthood as ethical a desirable, so he accepted and propagated an ethical and desirable framing of biblical servitude.

In this way, I don’t think he is unique. Sympathetic presentations of biblical slavery are common, even from those who would flatly condemn its counterpart in the last century. I don’t mean to condemn this particular professor as an especially bad actor, but rather to present this paper as a glaring example of a common interpretive orientation. All of us were born into this racial caste system, and our thinking and engagement with ideas and institutions have been shaped by aspects of our identity that we did not choose. As we grow and learn, however, we can gain a critical understanding of these received structures and work to change them.

It’s difficult to admit, but at the time of this seminar I wanted to believe this framing. I wanted to believe that biblical slavery was different in kind from all other kinds of slavery, because the Bible was different in kind from all other books. Unlearning this unconscious desire to gloss over the oppressive and unjust parts of the text required reading the work of scholars whose experience was informed by the other side of the arrangement—scholars whose family stories were of discrimination and oppression, whose ethics were formed in subjugated communities burning to live free. It took scholars who would not gloss over inconvenient facts in a rush to apologize for a broken and unjust system, even if it came from their sacred Scriptures.

Some slaves in biblical texts may have been treated well and prospered, but the laws regulating the practice also left ample room for abuse and degradation. Too often, the whiteness of academic biblical studies has obscured biblical slavery’s harsher realities and mischaracterized it as a gentle and humane social arrangement. This does a disservice to African American readers of the text, for whom the fundamental illegitimacy of forced labor is immediately apparent. This is one reason why it is necessary to broaden the engagement of historically underrepresented groups in academic biblical studies and to read and teach their insights alongside the work of white scholars.

Further Resources

This post covered just one small way in which white supremacy has influenced biblical interpretation. Its reach is not limited to issues of slavery, though. If you are interested in learning more, I would point you toward the following scholars, among other.

Dr. Wilda C. Gafney has made this short Scholar Strike video surveying the many faces of white supremacy in biblical interpretation. Go ahead and watch it right now:

She has also written two books, both of which are filled with interrogations of white supremacist readings and proposed alternatives. Go buy, Daughters of Miriam and Womanist Midrash.

In regard to specifically Christian uses of the Bible in support of racist policies and practices, I recommend Jemar Tisby’s must-read The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism and the accompanying video series on Amazon Prime (linked on the book page).

See also Dr. Nyasha Junior’s Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and BibleIntroduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation, and (with Jeremy Schipper) Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon.

Please feel free to drop more resources in the comments!